“You want my…passengers, let’s call them, to pass judgement on you? For you?”
I hated that my voice got shrill, near the end of that. Calm had escaped me during the slaughter, and it was all I could do not to break down in tears.
“Kind of,” she said, waving an idle hand, “But obviously I’m not trying to pretend that they are real, or that they matter. Think of it like divining with entrails, if that helps any.”
“An old, stupid, barbaric custom that the world has looked past?” I snarled.
Spite seemed my only refuge, and I threw myself into it. If I stopped to contemplate the future, if I sought to make another plan or consider the consequences of my actions then I’d drown in grief. I had to keep moving.
“Sure,” she said, idly waving a hand. “You do it all the time, but let’s pretend your choices are all driven by sweet reason.”
“I’m not-“ I paused, nearly choking with sheer fucking anger. There had to be a way to, it wasn’t possible that-
I took a deep breath.
“I pass judgements based on other people’s opinions,” I said, slowly, “and that’s fine because I’m not out here claiming that other people aren’t real. Your position is logically incoherent in a way that mine isn’t.”
“I pass judgements based on other people’s opinions,” she said, doing a deliberately shitty impression of my voice.
“You don’t pass shit,” she finished, using her own voice again, “You are a rock, rolling downhill. The other souls you lug around are just as fake as you are. There’s no substance to you, nothing there beyond the obvious. Just rocks colliding with one another, signifying nothing.”
“Is that how you can do what you do?” I demanded. “Just tell yourself that we don’t suffer and it’s ok to mistreat us? A few words of garbage philosophy to make everything ok, no matter how much of a shit you are?”
She pointed a finger again, but something had flipped in my soul. I couldn’t have backed down if I wanted to.
I’d moved beyond fear. Fury and sorrow ruled me now.
“You are pitiful,” I said, “I truly, really mean that. I thought it when I met Condemner’s true self, and I’m more convinced than ever upon meeting you. You are wretched creatures.”
Remover rolled her eyes at me, the juvenile expression strange on a face so lovely.
“It isn’t a coincidence,” I went on, “That Prevailer, the worst of us, ended up on top. You chose that. You chose all of that horror, just because the absolute lowest a human could go was the only thing one of your kind could actually recognize.”
I was caught off guard by her sudden chuckle. It seemed entirely genuine.
“Jane,” she said, when she’d finished, “Answer me honestly. Do you think for a second that Prevailer was the worst person I could have picked?”
I still wanted her eyes to be somehow inhuman, but there was just nothing there. It was just a person sitting across from me, making casual small talk after killing all but a remnant of those I’d-
“I wouldn’t put anything past your spite, your cruelty,” I fairly spit at her. “I’m not going to dance for your amusement. If I guess I’m sure you’ll just call me wrong and take it as an excuse to commit some other atrocity.”
Remover leaned across the table, reached out a hand as though to rest it on mine.
I jerked away, barely able to keep myself from going for my gun again.
“I don’t need excuses,” she said, “And you… Jane, you aren’t anything outside of what I want you to be. The only reason you’d answer me was because I made you answer me. Same goes for your silence. It’s my decision. You are a stone, falling. You are a domino, toppling in a line. There’s nothing to you, to any of you.”
“Now the insul-“
I couldn’t finish before she spoke over me again.
“That’s how I can see the future, Jane. It isn’t divination, it’s nothing more or less complicated than making a decision. We are beyond you. I picked the moment of your arrival. I picked how you’d get here. I blocked your bullets because I decided where you’d shoot. You and your kind, your whole universe…it’s just clockwork all the way down. Entirely predictable, no mysteries, nothing but physics.”
“You failing to recognize the suffering you’ve inflicted doesn’t fucking excuse you, you freak!” I snapped back, instantly, “It isn’t for the criminal to tell his victims whether their pain is real or not!”
She pantomimed a wince.
“Alright,” she said, “Let’s play it out. So you’ve just tried to kill me, that didn’t work, now you are trying to hurt my feelings with a shitty lecture. What’s next? Are we gonna make out?”
I slammed a fist into the table. There was no way out of this situation anyway, but I didn’t have to fucking take this.
“What the fuck do you need from us? How can you need anything, if you claim that we aren’t anything but what you want us to be? Are you actually even hearing the things you say?”
I was honestly at least a little curious. I wouldn’t put it past her to just be fucking with me this whole time.
“Need is a strong term, this is…hmm, let’s call it aftercare. Just general tidiness. The fun part is over and I’m setting the books back on the shelf.”
“Aftercare?” I asked, “Is that normally something rapists bother with?”
In this metaphor, I guess, the ones who’d had sex were her kind and all of humanity, and fuck if I was letting that pass without comment.
“You invited us,” she said with another shrug, “If you want to change your mind after that’s fine, but let’s not pretend that there wasn’t consent.”
“Are you out of your fucking mind?”
“Your kind built entire structures, big ones, and then everyone prayed for years and years, begging and beseeching those above you to take an interest. You wanted us to tell you how to glorify us. Lots of flowery words about making you our instrument. Across eras and continents you’ve been begging us.”
“You aren’t God!” I retorted.
She rolled her eyes again.
“How many humans have begged for this chance, throughout your history? How many would have died to get a chance to talk to God, one on one?”
It seemed like she wanted me to answer, so I didn’t. Fuck her.
“And here you are, with that glorious opportunity, and all you’ve got to say to me is that you want to talk to my manager.”
“According to what you said before,” I said, each word practically bitten off, “You are the one feeding me my lines, so I don’t think it makes sense for you to whine about the quality of my dialog.”
She raised her hand, as though to acknowledge the point, then lapsed into a momentary silence, looking up at the moon and the night sky.
I just stared knives at her, fuming inwardly. I couldn’t let myself think about those she’d just snuffed out and I certainly wasn’t about to ponder her juvenile baiting. I just stared and hated.
“The people you’ve got left in there,” she said, after a long period of silence, “They are special. They’ve seen everything you’ve seen along your whole voyage. They’ve seen the Regime, the Pantheon and the Union, each at their worst. They’ve seen your deeds, they know this world. They have context.”
“So,” I said, the instant she finished with her monolog, “They still aren’t real, right? This is just more masturbation?”
She steepled her fingers, looked over them at me.
“It’s like I said before. It’s divination. They are just about the only thing in your whole world I haven’t bothered to look at.”
My eyes widened, but before I could do anything she kept on talking.
“They aren’t able to kill me, Jane. There’s no path where you get what you want. If you try, you’ll just get them killed, like you did all the rest.”
I was honestly tempted to try it, but if I did so she’d see it coming. What I needed was some way to relinquish control without choosing to do so, get the attack hidden somehow under whatever self imposed veil covered my survivors.
“I’m going to try and get this done before you talk yourself into more idiocy,” she continued. “These witnesses, this Jury, they are as close as your kind gets to having volition. Their motivations are a complicated mess that I haven’t looked closely at. Like a tangle of wires. I’m going to let them ‘pick’ the form that your consolation prize takes. You understand? A divining game, like picking petals off a flower.”
She looked into my eyes, but I knew that she was looking past me, deep into the reserve.
“Don’t worry about what Jane thinks,” she said, “I know that not all of you buy into her bullshit. Don’t worry about yourselves, what you might gain or lose, because you are going to be dead in a moment. Don’t worry-“
“What!” I shouted, grabbing for my gun.
She didn’t move, even as I pointed it right at her face. No neon green energy, no hint that she was anything other than at my mercy.
I ached to pull the trigger. If she was going to kill us all anyway, what could it possibly cost me?
I didn’t. I slid the gun back into my holster instead. I’d tried the whole ‘just fucking shoot her’ thing earlier, and she hadn’t lost any powers since then.
“It’s the end of gifts,” she explained, once again talking to me but really to those within me. “This party is coming to an end, and that means that those of you still attached to Jane will end along with it. You accepted that possibility when you stayed inside her, when you didn’t clamor for new forms like your colleagues.”
“The end of gifts?” I echoed.
She ran a hand through her hair, sighed.
“Let me start over,” she said, then held up a finger for silence.
We passed a timeless moment together, the night around us seeming to swallow everything up except for me and the creature I couldn’t kill.
“You know that I know everything, yes? You accept this by this point, even if our dear Jane puts its out of her tiny little mind every few seconds so she can pretend she has a chance. What’s going to happen next is that I’m going to tell you the future unaltered, and you are going to pick from six possible changes I can make to it. Once that’s done, the gifts will go away and you all die.”
I didn’t say anything. If any of my shades felt the urge to speak up, they didn’t express it. I was still half hoping they’d figure out some way to kill Remover.
“Very soon,” she began, “Right when we finish up here, the Union’s super satellite will target and destroy Inviting Entity’s manifestation on the moon. The exact technology it will use, and why that will pierce his Ultra shield, is unimportant. The thing that’s important to you, here and now, is that the destruction of his proxy will signal the end of this celebration to my kind.”
She paused again, but we still didn’t speak up.
“Delighting Entity’s proxy used the metaphor of your universe being a tree, and your souls the grubs attached to it. The party, then, is a bunch of people standing around the tree, each with their hands on a grub. When Inviting Entity lets go of his grub and heads to the party, almost all of them will do likewise. I’ll shoo most of the ones who remain, and throughout all of your world, the Ultras will lose their gifts.”
My eyes widened in spite of myself. I’d imagined the end of Ultra gifts many times, but Remover was saying, in a dry, casual and matter of fact manner, that it was about to happen. Not in years. Not in days. Right now.
“There’s your first choice for intervention right there. My inclination is to be pretty casual about the whole thing. The vast majority of my kind will depart on their own, and I’ll get some of the remainder, but there will still be a few dozen Ultras in your world.”
I felt my fists clinch, my eyes narrow to hateful slits.
“If you choose the first intervention, then I’ll hang around for a bit before going to the afterparty. I’ll do my job thoroughly and in depth, and there won’t be a single one of my kind still here. If you choose the first intervention, then from the moment the moon shatters that’s it for Ultras. No more. The effects of the existing gifts will continue on, the Links, the items Refiner blessed, and a thousand more besides, but that’ll be it. Your kind will, by and large, rule their own world again, with only such relief from your physics as the refuse of our passing will leave behind.”
Somehow I could tell that she was looking at me again, not just at those I carried.
“That’s the answer Jane’s petulance demands. If you are in harmony with the part of her that tried to shoot me in the back, and then got enraged when I defended myself, then here’s your ‘fuck you’ choice. This is as much as I’ll let you make me suffer, a bit of extra busywork. That’s your big revenge. Take it or leave it.”
I opened my mouth, but she went on before I could say anything.
“The weapon’s unleashed will ruin your moon, blast it utterly. Most of it will stay in its place, but large sections of it, absent my intervention, will rain down on your world. Millions will die in horrific natural calamities.”
“That’s your second intervention?” I demanded, “Just taking hostages?”
“If you genuinely agree with Jane’s self imposed mission to save as many beating hearts as possible, here’s your answer. If you ask for my second intervention, then the devastation…just won’t happen. The moon will shatter in such a way that most of it will hang right about where it used to be, and what fragments escape will do so harmlessly. The people of the Pantheon will be saved.”
“Only the people of the Pantheon?”
“The devastation will be concentrated in the global south. Whether or not I intervene the Union and Regime won’t suffer very much. The casualties will be heavily concentrated among the people you liked to think of as savages.”
“Do you really think you can phrase it like that and just manipulate my passengers?” I demanded. “We aren’t children.”
“Feel free not to fall for it,” she said, “That’s the second intervention, save the lives of millions, mostly concentrated in the Pantheon. You were lecturing the Union at one point and you called them ‘humanity’s present.”
She grinned savagely at me.
“You didn’t mean the pun, of course, but we certainly enjoyed playing with them.”
I ground my teeth.
“You can probably guess that the third intervention is the one you’ve been hoping for, all along. Save the Union. If Jane’s nostalgia has impressed you, her weird hard-on for a world long in its grave, then here’s your pick.”
“What are you doing to them?”
I’d never felt so helpless in all my life. Listening to her just casually spouting out her bullshit was taking everything I had.
“Their enemy fled back home after the Company shut down, luckily enough. Zeus made his choice. World domination was never quite real in his mind, the world he cared about was the one waiting for him at home. The Union learned of his absence, and they are making their move on the Brides.”
“They were defending themselves,” I clarified, “Against a ruthless enemy that sought nothing less than their annihilation. We’ve seen them, remember. We know the Pantheon and the Union.”
Remover gave a thin smile.
“You’ve seen them, to be sure, but I’d contend that you never let yourself know the Union. You excused what they did to you, licked their boots and made excuses for them. If I wanted to know what Jane Trent felt about the Union I wouldn’t bother with all this. But I’m not asking you. I’m asking your passengers. I’m asking other people who’ve shared your experiences, but who may not share your nostalgic obsession with a world long dead and gone.”
I struck the table.
“Get to the point! Finish your gloating. What’s going to happen to the Union if we don’t beg you to save them?”
“Among the Brides there is one in particular, the one who turned their satellite weapon against them. They’ve agonized over the possibility, but were never able to get proof positive, one way or another. If I don’t intervene, then they’ll use SPARTACUS, their society’s central resource, in the attack. The Ultra’s gift will bring it to life, and her death will turn it against them.”
“You think you understand the way the Union lives. You remember the Network from your early days, you imagine that it must be similar. You’re wrong. Their society, their industry, their research and education, SPARTACUS supervises all of it. With that peg kicked out from under them, no, turned actively against them, well, I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out.”
I was playing her game, considering all this bullshit like she wasn’t just going to pull the rug out from under us. What I needed to be doing was figuring out something, anything, that I could do.
“So that’s it for the interventions Jane might approve of. The first three. Tell me to screw off, save the most people, or keep her childhood dream alive.”
I couldn’t shoot her, or oppose her in any physical way. Her precognition and ability to disintegrate things were a trump card. But there had to be something…
“The other three interventions are much more personal,” she said. “If you don’t buy into Jane’s silly notions at all, that she owes everything forever to people she’s never met for no reason, then maybe you might be more interested in these choices.”
I made a noise, deep down in my throat. Guttural, bestial. I felt like I was being strangled, like I was entirely unequal to the demands of the moment.
“An ethical system is more than ‘notions’,” I ground out, “And you aren’t fooling anyone who’s lived this nightmare alongside me. Do you really think a few slick words will make us abandon our principles?”
Remover didn’t say anything for a bit, staring up at the sky again.
“Jane,” she said at last, “Why do you think your passengers, and these ones that remain in particular, are in agreement with you? What evidence do you have of that?”
“They’ve saved me!” I snapped back, instantly, “They’ve supported me through all my endeavors, shaped the person I became.”
She looked back at me.
“They told the person who can kill them at will that they are on her team. They risked their lives to save the person who can’t die until she loses them.”
She let that sit a moment.
“Wow, that’s compelling evidence,” she said, “It’s pretty much exactly the same evidence that Prevailer has that you are loyal to Her.”
“That’s different,” I said.
“Sure,” she said, “So nobody will vote for any of these other options. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”
I looked up into the sky, focusing on the moon. Anything to get her out of my line of sight for a damn second. My outrage was tyrannizing me, playing on my nerves like a maddened violinist. I felt like I was about to explode.
“The fourth intervention concerns your good buddy Preventer,” she said. “My old friends have her, and her dagger buddy. Once the gifts are gone, well, I’m afraid my old crew will still have the upper hand.”
I still didn’t look at her. I nearly put my hands up and covered my ears. Tears stung my eyes, and I concentrated on my breathing.
“I know, I know,” conceded Remover, “Jane’s system would have you forsake the few for the many. And, after all, Preventer has hurt a lot of people you don’t know. That makes it ok that she suffers as few ever have, right?”
“It’s not ‘ok’, “ I said, voice breaking about phantom tears, “It’s just math. We won’t choose one person over everyone.”
“Why not?” asked Remover, a tone of genuine inquiry creeping into her tone, “What’s your perception of the reason that you must always be the slave of anyone, provided you don’t know them? What did all these people, a shocking number of whom wouldn’t piss on you if you were on fire, do to earn your undying fealty?”
“It’s not about-“
She interrupted me before I could get going.
“I know the actual answer, of course. You aren’t a complicated thing. I know exactly which classes, which experiences, I’d need to change to make you argue the other side of the point. But what does it feel like, from the inside? Why are you clawing at your own soul right now, so desperate not to be the kind of person who’d ever consider saving her friend?”
I balled my hands into fists on the table before me, stared up at nothing.
“Hey,” she said, “She’s a fascist anyway, right? Fuck her.”
“Fuck you!” I answered. “She’s what you made her.”
“So that’s your fourth intervention,” she said. “If you pick this one then Preventer and her buddy will win their little fight with my old Link. It’ll be a heroic victory, good guys defeating evil. Just the kind of thing you like.”
“And the Pantheon will drown,” I put in, “And the Union will fall. And a few of you devils will still be here.”
“If Preventer’s a bit loathsome for this temptation to work,” said Remover, “then what about Dale?”
It was like a fist clenched in my core, clenched and twisted. The numbness I’d been building up around me shattered, and I looked aghast at Remover.
She hadn’t moved much in all the time I’d been looking away. She was still sprawled in the chair across from me, leaning her cheek against a fist and gesturing with her other hand.
“If you dare-“
“Easy,” she said, cutting me off once more, “I love Dale! He’s a wrestler, and it’s great. Dale’s gonna be fine. Don’t jump to conclusions.”
This time I cut myself off, biting off a whole rant that would only have let her laugh at me.
“Dale’s going to see to Her. He’s got Prevailer at his mercy, right now. As we speak he’s looming over her bed, wrestling with himself.”
She laughed, startling me a bit.
“You see what I did there? Wrestling with himself?”
More laughter, childish and light, more of a giggle than anything else.
“Get on with it,” I ground out.
“Alright, alright, jeez,” she said, clicking her tongue at me, “So the thing of it all is, Dale isn’t like you. He doesn’t do the math, you know? Always a big believer in mercy, in sparing people, giving second chances, all that. His heart beats for what he can see, for the friends around him. You see where I’m going?”
“No,” I said.
Not to her question. I saw where she was going. But whatever this thing said there was no way I’d believe that anyone living in this world would spare Her.
“But she wooks so widdle,” Remover said, making her voice go childish for a second, “And there’s the baby to think of. Dale really doesn’t like the idea of hurting people who can’t fight back, you know that. He’ll tell himself that he’s just keeping Her ok for now, just till the baby is older, but, wouldn’t you know it?”
She spread her hands wide and gave me a dopy grin.
I just blinked tears from my eyes and stared at her.
“Fine,” she said after a moment, “The point is that they’ll live together, happily ever after, for a good long while. She gets a happy ending, after everything She’s done to you.”
“I don’t believe you,” I said, low, monotone.
“Sure,” she said, “I’m lying to my glove. Whatever. But, like I’ve told you, what matters is that your passengers believe me.”
“No one is that dumb,” I said.
“Well,” she answered, her voice thick with incredulity, “I thought I’d leave the spite option in there anyway. If you ask for the fifth intervention, then Dale will kill Prevailer. She doesn’t get away with it. Justice carried out. Vengeance and blood, all that kind of thing. Not my cup of tea, but I thought I’d present the option.”
“We refuse it,” I practically spat out. “This entire situation is perverse beyond reason. You claim to be God-like, but these are the actions of a cowardly bully.”
“Last one,” she said, “And you can probably guess what it is.”
“She’s going to promise to save me,” I told the reserve, speaking out loud so that my tormentor could hear as well. “I swear to you, even if such an intervention carried the day, I would immediately kill myself. I have less than no interest in living in this abomination, this FREAK’s debt.”
I was shaking with passion, tears streaming down my face.
Remover, by contrast, grew ever more languorous and placid. She looked practically bored.
“She won’t, though,” she said, the instant I finished talking. “She’ll agonize about it for a bit, then decide that she needs to make your sacrifice worthwhile. She’ll take it upon herself to intervene in the other situations with the information she got from my little lecture, and I won’t spoil how well that’ll go.”
“So that’s the sixth intervention. As soon as we’re gone, Jane and Karen over here, the original owner of this body, will try and shoot one another. Karen wins unless you pick otherwise.”
“I’m asking you,” I begged those within, “do not do this.”
An outside observer would have thought I was praying, and maybe in a way I was.
“Already done kiddo,” said Remover, then snapped her fingers.
“What’s…” I asked, at the same time as she said “Interesting…”
But neither of us finished our sentences, because all of a sudden a blinding spectacle made a mockery of our senses.
The sky split, a bar of shining fulmination transgressing all reason suddenly appearing across it. My eyes closed instantly, but I could still see the bar through them.
It was utterly unnatural, an impossibility that resembled the Union’s folded space beams as death does sleep. It spit the Moon like an apple, cored it in an instant and carried on across the sky, dividing the visible universe in twain.
“Aaagh!” shouted Remover, a hand raised against the impossible spectacle. She clawed for her gun with her other hand.
It was in a shoulder holster, while I wore mine at my waist.
I quick drew, trying not to think about why none of my shades were pitching in to speed the motion.
My gun came out first, but my draw slammed into the bottom of the table. I pulled frantically back, trying to get the gun around the table edge and into line to fire.
She finally got hers up out of the holster, our eyes locked for an instant as both guns swung towards their targets.
A single shot challenged the sundered sky.